One Florida mother shows how choice promotes equity

We agree with Walt Gardner when he writes on the Education Week blog, Reality Check, that parental choice is no panacea for what ails public education today. To be sure, advocates of choice largely highlight the benefits of placing public education options in the marketplace and too often fail to note the equal opportunities those choices yield. And equity is what’s on Gardner’s mind.

But historically, the argument for greater educational options for our most disadvantaged families is rooted in family policy and the call to level the playing field for the poor. The policy engineers who designed the blueprint for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty understood that and considered the earliest school voucher plans that focused on the needs of low-income families. Milwaukee’s voucher system and Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship are legacies of those ambitions, whether advocates of choice openly acknowledge that or not.

Gardner supports providing parents with more options, but he sees a disconnect – and, ultimately, a lack of fairness – between the perception of public school choice and the frustration parents experience when facing the admissions criteria school districts have established. He doesn’t address how private learning options can resolve that conflict, but it’s Florida’s program, in particular, that can help bring fairness to a process that is supposed to empower the parent.

The case of one mother in St. Petersburg, Fla., personifies this. Six years ago, Shannon Coates was preparing to enroll her kindergarten-age daughter in the Pinellas County school district, which at the time had opened its schools to a myriad of options as it came out from under a federal desegregation order. Coates had done her homework – her own mother had been a longtime school administrator in the district – and she lined up her choices quickly, visiting several schools and narrowing her top choices to five, most of them magnet schools. She applied for all five, in priority order, and was chagrinned to receive the district’s answer. She didn’t get a single one.

Complicating her decision was the district’s cap on black student enrollment in each Pinellas County school at the time. Coates, an African-American, was then forced to decide whether to send her 5-year-old daughter on a 45-minute one-way bus ride from the southern part of the county to a school in the northern part of the county. “That was devastating to me,” she told the St. Petersburg Times last year.

A friend of hers with children in a private school mentioned the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Given Coates’ household income – her daughter qualified for the National School Lunch Program – she was eligible for the scholarship, which ultimately put her in contact with an educator named Yvonne C. Reed. Reed was a Pinellas County public school teacher for 34 years. She retired on a Friday, and opened her own school the next Monday, located in one of the most economically depressed areas of St. Petersburg. Reed’s gift was to get young children, particularly kindergarten-age children, on track to read at grade level in their later years. Her school reached out predominately to impoverished black families. For Coates, it was the perfect fit.

Today, her daughter is a middle school student who recently performed an artistic dance at an event attended by Florida’s newly elected governor.

Far from a panacea, the scholarship gave Coates an option she couldn’t otherwise afford at a time when her school district – one she graduated from herself – offered a plan for school choice that turned out to be anything but. “I never thought about private school to be honest with you,” she said. “My mom is a public school educator. I went through the public school system … [But] I’m not going to put my kid on that bus and have to worry every single day about her safety. Now I have a choice to say, ‘No, my kid is going to go to the school that is maybe five minutes away from my house. And they’re giving me a chance to do that and give her the education that she deserves.’”

Her choice didn’t depend on whether her public school was “failing.” It was made possible by a state policy that assumes our poorest families shouldn’t be denied educational opportunities simply because they can’t afford them.

One might call that equitable.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit

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